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‘Noises Off’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 20, 1992

The smell of the greasepaint clings to Peter Bogdanovich's "Noises Off," the antically paced British play that never quite becomes a motion picture, tied as it is to the traditions and timing of the theater. But that doesn't necessarily preclude the roar of the crowd, which peaks with the full-proof hilarity of the farce's second act, seen from backstage, before it exhausts itself before the final curtain.

"Noises" is a bedroom-door-banging rumpus that originated in London's West End, and Bogdanovich's version likewise sends up the conventions of British burlesque -- which is a bit peculiar coming from a mostly American cast performing in Des Moines. A tangle-footed troupe of incompetents, they are trying out a Broadway-bound production of a British smash, "Nothing On," guided by their wearily cynical director (Michael Caine). As he runs them through a final dress rehearsal, everything that can go wrong does, from dropped pants to forgotten props to garbled lines. We see how it's supposed to go, but opening night promises to be a heroic catastrophe of elaborately choreographed miscues.

Two disastrous performances follow -- one a helter-skelter matinee seen from the actors' perspective backstage and the other a botched evening show once more on this side of the footlights. All the flub-ups come as a result of the many physical, mental and emotional shortcomings of a cast that includes Carol Burnett as a faded leading lady, John Ritter as her jealous young lover, Christopher Reeve as the insecure hunk, Marilu Henner as the tongue-wagging second lead, Nicollette Sheridan as the dimwitted ingenue and Denholm Elliott as the besotted and hard-of-hearing British legend. Helping out behind the scenes are Mark Linn-Baker and Julie Hagerty as the stage manager and his daffy assistant.

The performers all seem to be relishing this sendup, but we're always aware that it is a vehicle better suited to the stage. In trying to open it up some for the screen, Bogdanovich and scriptwriter Marty Kaplan have presented the original play as a series of flashbacks that come upon Caine as he sweats out the play's Broadway opening. All this does is slow the opening and delay the close.

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